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Law Day Address by Robert F. Kennedy: School Desegregation

On May 6, 1961 Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy delivered the Law Day Address at the University of Georgia Law School. While there is an official version of the speech found at the National Archives there are other markedly different versions.

Focus on School Desegregation

During the speech, Attorney General Kennedy highlighted three "major areas of difficulty within the purview of my responsibilities that sap our national strength, that weaken our people, that require our immediate attention." These included organized crime, corrupt practices in business and by unions, and civil rights which included school desegregation. These would continue to be areas of focus for the rest of his professional life. He also specifically discussed the Brown v. Board of Education decisions.

Brown v. Board of Education by Sharon Bradley

Brown v. Board of Education was actually two U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Brown I, 347 U.S. 483, argued Dec. 9, 1952, reargued Dec. 8, 1953, decided May 17, 1954 by a vote of 9 to 0, opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren;  and Brown II, 349 U.S. 294, in which the question of relief was reargued April 11-14, 1954, decided May 31, 1955 by a vote of 9 to 0, opinion written by Warren.

The decisions culminated a litigation campaign by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its legal unit, the Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., begun twenty years earlier. Beginning in the 1930s, the NAACP brought suit at the state and then the federal level challenging the “Jim Crow” laws–state-imposed racial segregation in public accommodations and in education. The primary obstacle to dismantling the Jim Crow system was the Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), in which the Court determined that state-imposed racial segregation in public facilities was not “unreasonable” and so did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The deterioration of Plessy as authority for state-imposed segregation began in 1938 when the Supreme Court in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337,  invalidated Missouri’s out-of-state tuition program for African-American law students.

A significant event took place in 1948, when the U.S. Attorney General signed an amicus curiae brief in a race case, Shelley v. Kramer, 334 U.S. 1 (restrictive covenants were unconstitutional). This signaled the federal government’s symbolic support for the NAACP’s long term strategy. Two years later the Court invalidated segregation in graduate school (McLaurin v.Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, 339 U.S. 637) and in law schools (Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629). Both opinions noted the inequality of facilities created by Jim Crow, but for the first time disapproved of the intangible but real harms of racial segregation.

The most difficult obstacle to ending segregation in public education was the scope of relief. When Brown was first argued in 1952 the Court was divided on how and at what pace to order relief. It was the untimely death of Chief Justice Fred Vinson that allowed the Court to move forward. The new chief justice, Earl Warren, was able to convince his colleagues to decide the merits in one opinion and to defer the question of relief to a second opinion following reargument. His most significant accomplishment may have been presenting a unanimous vote and opinion. He had to convince at least two justices not to file opinions they had already begun drafting, Robert H. Jackson, a concurrence and Stanley F. Reed, a dissent. The Court’s unanimity  has been praised as one of the strengths of the opinions. Brown I was additionally praised for the manner in which Warren wrote the opinion. It was short (10 pages), non-accusatory, and non-technical. Warren wanted the opinion understood by layman and even reprinted in the public press.

Many hoped that Brown II would lay out a plan for the desegregation of the nation’s public schools. The NAACP had urged desegregation to proceed immediately or at least with specific deadlines. The Court feared a violent reaction if they ordered desegregation at a pace the states could not or would not accept. The Court used the phrase “with all deliberate speed” in ordering the states to begin desegregation. The financial burden of producing desegregation plans was placed on the plaintiffs and the NAACP, none of whom could afford such costs. Some hoped, maybe even assumed, the Department of Justice, which had participated in all of the Brown arguments, would support the plaintiffs. President Eisenhower avoided the issue and promised only “to obey the law of the land.” Brown II was criticized for its lack of clarity and its weakening of the moral position of Brown I.

Because of the lack of direction in Brown II the Court had to reexplain and even reestablish the principle in every subsequent segregation case. Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958), was the first significant legal test of the enforcement of Brown. In another unanimous decision actually signed by all of the justices, the Court held that postponing plans for desegregation in good faith and even in the interest of preserving public peace would violate black students’ rights under the Equal Protection Clause. The Court clearly reminded the states’ governors and legislators they were bound by the Supremacy Clause to uphold decisions of the Supreme Court. In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430 (1968), the Court held that compliance with Brown II required not simply abolition of state-imposed segregative practices but the effective desegregation of formerly segregated schools. Busing for racial balance was a natural outcome of Green, which the Court confirmed in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971).

On some levels Brown was ineffective. A decade after the first decision, less than 2 percent of formerly segregated school districts had experienced any desegregation. Yet the goals of Brown prompted passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Additional Resources

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights - advocacy organization

Education resources on school desegregation from the National Archives.

The Civil Rights Digital Library Initiative and the Digital Library of Georgia present Freedom on Film: Civil Rights in Georgia.

The American Bar Association campaigned to establish Law Day as a way to celebrate and honor our heritage of liberty under law and to recognize how the rule of law makes our democracy possible. In 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 (Previously known as May Day or International Workers' Day) would now be known as Law Day, U.S.A. codified by Pub.L. No. 87-20 (1961).

The school in Topeka, Kansas is a National Historic Site maintained by the National Park Service.


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